Monday, October 18, 2021

Tavener and the Musica perennis

Several chapters in a new collection discuss the Traditionalism of Sir John Tavener (1944-2013), the acclaimed British musician who was a follower of Frithjof Schuon. It is Heart's Ease: Spirituality in the Music of John Tavener, edited by June Boyce-Tillman and Anne-Marie Forbes (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2020).

The collection consists of nine chapters and eight “interludes,” preludes or postludes, distinguished from the formal chapters by being more reflective and less academic, and often very short. The opening “prelude,” by Boyce-Tillman, sets the scene with a short biographical introduction to Tavener and his best-known work. This is followed by a chapter in which Stephen Roberts traces “Tavener’s Musical Theology of Religions,” working through Orthodoxy to arrive at Traditionalism. 

Then comes one of two chapters that deal at length with Tavener’s Traditionalism, “In Search of Truth: John Tavener’s Transition from Western Culture to Eastern Tradition” by Andrzej Kęsiak, a Polish theologian and musician who is currently working in the UK on a PhD thesis about Tavener. Kęsiak starts with Tavener’s rejection of modernism, follows through the “Search for Tradition” that led him to Orthodox Christianity, and ends with Traditionalism and the “Musica perennis,” Tavener’s application to music of Schuon’s understanding of the transcendent unity of religions.

Several further chapters deal with particular compositions: Tavener’s “Prayer to the Holy Trinity,” his “To a Child Dancing in the Wind,” his Requiem, and his “Three Hymns of George Herbert.” Then come three chapters dealing with particular issues: his “Search for an English Orthodox Musical Language”, “Sacred Silence,” and finally the use of his music in therapy. 

Of these chapters, the most important for those who are interested primarily in Traditionalism is the chapter on Tavener’s Requiem, written by Bart Seaton-Said, a practicing musician and former Anglican Franciscan. This is mostly a musical analysis, and shows how the Requiem is a “broadening of the parameters of sacred Christian art” and “manifests outwardly Schuon’s theme of the ‘transcendent unity of relations.’”

The book provides a useful study of Tavener’s music, and of the impact of Traditionalism on that music. Tavener’s project of discovering the Musica perennis is one of the most interesting recent developments of traditionalism, and – arguably – one of the most successful.